Wednesday, September 30, 2009
Monbiot on Debating Science
He smears "climate change deniers" by lumping them together with creationists, and is guilty of an ad hominem attack later in this opinion piece. Nevertheless, George Monbiot makes the following thought-provoking point about scientific debates before lay audiences:
[T]rying to debate with ["deniers"] is a frustrating and often futile exercise. It takes 30 seconds to make a misleading scientific statement and 30 minutes to refute it. By machine-gunning their opponents with falsehoods, the deniers put scientists in an impossible position: either you seek to answer their claims, which can't be done in the time available, or you let them pass, in which case the points appear to stand. Many an eminent scientist has come unstuck in these situations. This is why science is conducted in writing, where claims can be tested and sources checked.Unfortunately, Monbiot is discussing Ian Plimer's new book, Heaven and Earth, which I have recently read. Plimer has, in my opinion, unfortunately, set the table very nicely for Monbiot and other proponents of the Anthropogenic Global Warming view, as well as those who hope to use it as an excuse to greatly expand state control over the economy.
Leaving the book and the scientific debate aside for the moment, Monbiot's ad hominem raises some interesting questions.
Most of the prominent climate change deniers who are not employed solely by the fossil fuel industry have a similar profile: men whose professional careers are about to end or have ended already.For one thing, the raising of the issue, however underhandedly, of a scientist's funding source possibly undermining his integrity hides in plain sight the fact that a great many scientists on his side arguably regard it as in their interests to ensure an uninterrupted flow of state research funds for their work. For another, it brings up a set of interrelated questions I have been contemplating for some time: What is the right time, place, and way to educate the public on scientific matters?
State funding of science, by entangling scientific debate with public policy, has unparalleled potential to corrupt the science itself and, by often prematurely or inappropriately making highly specialized matter the business of untrained laypeople, to hinder objective communication about scientific findings.
He probably does...
There are many, many things I disagree with in this blog posting on a recent speech about innovation by Barack Obama, but I think the following quote is much closer to the truth than its author does:
It is therefore conceivable that President Obama thinks innovation will occur as a result of altruistic means and in spite of patent protection.Of course, it's also conceivable, given the effects many of his other policies will eventually have on the economy, that Barack Obama doesn't really want innovation to occur at all.
A License to Beg
If roads were privately-owned, I suspect that there would be no impetus for the government to issue permits to panhan-- I mean, trespassers .
Of Features and Bugs
During a fascinating discussion about "e-memory," Microsoft researcher Gordon Bell makes the following quip:
Forgetting is not a feature, it's a flaw. I don't think forgetting is an important feature of human memory. I think it's important to be able to remember things accurately.His remark indrectly reminds me that control of when you remember things -- which could loosely be called "forgetting" -- actually is a feature. Just ask someone with super autobiographical memory (aka hyperthymesia).
Probably the best known of the four, Jill Price has described her "gift" as "nonstop, uncontrollable and totally exhausting." She was the first to be diagnosed with the condition, and recently published a memoir, The Woman Who Can't Forget. Price remembers most details of nearly every day she's been alive since she was 14 and compares her super memory to walking around with a video camera on her shoulder. "If you throw a date out at me, it's as if I pulled a videotape out, put in a VCR and just watched the day," she has said. [minor edits, formatting dropped]Of course, Bell's work offers the interesting prospect of striking a happy medium between Jill Price's indiscriminate recall of everything and getting the past information you actually need when you need it.
That said, it does also raise the question of whether you'd want to rely too heavily on e-memory. I face basically the same issue every time I drive in Boston, and consider whether to use GPS. For now, I don't, because being lost is part of how you learn your way around.